GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Hockey aside, it was already an important year for J.T. Miller.
Sure, the New York Rangers forward was due for a raise after scoring 22 goals with 21 assists in 82 games last season. But Miller became a restricted free agent July 1, and the idea of not having a contract before a life-changing event admittedly kept him up at night.
Miller and his fiancee, Natalie, are days away from getting married. It was important to them that he not only avoided an arbitration hearing, which was scheduled for Aug. 2, but that he and the Rangers agreed to a contract before the big day.
"It was the last thing I wanted on my mind," Miller said at Madison Square Garden Training Center on Thursday, one day after signing a two-year contract with a reported average annual value of $2.75 million. "It's one of the most important weeks of my life, and I'm just kind of glad that I got it taken care of.
"I don't think we were going to need the arbitration. That was the last thing I think we all wanted to do was go there. Me and Natalie definitely wanted to get that done before."
It was a huge sigh of relief for Miller, who had never gone through this experience before. He admitted he would have preferred a lengthier contract, but the 23-year-old appreciates the faith the Rangers have in him.
"It was my first real negotiation-type thing," Miller said. "It's different. I tried not to stay stressed. I've got a lot going on right now in my life. There was definitely some days when I was just pulling my hair out, but there are other days when you just kind of sit back and realize, 'OK, it's going to be all right.' You just kind of wait and see. It's definitely a good first experience for sure.
Video: J.T. Miller On New Deal With Rangers
Courtesy of N.Y. Rangers
"From an organization standpoint and our standpoint, we all kind of agreed [a two-year contract] made more sense. I could re-sign in a year and extend, so it's not like any big deal. [A longer contract] would have been nice, but at the same time I'm very happy with where we came to. I just couldn't be happier that I'm still here and I'm looking forward to another opportunity."
The Rangers were 46-27-9 and third in the Metropolitan Division last season. They lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round, an early exit after reaching the conference final the previous year and the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. But Miller is convinced New York remains a contender.
"We happened to run into the best team in the NHL at the end of the day," Miller said of the Penguins. "I thought we had a great team. We had a good regular season at points. At points in the regular season, we were the best team, I thought. There was a lot of bright spots from [goalie Henrik Lundqvist] out, and I just think it's just another kick to the can this year and stuff happens in the playoffs. I think we're all looking forward to getting back with a lot of the same faces and we're very comfortable with each other. I think we're all hungry."
Miller, who was New York's first-round pick (No. 15) at the 2011 NHL Draft, arguably was the Rangers' best forward for a month-long stretch from mid-January to mid-February, when he scored nine goals in 10 games. He doesn't expect to have that type of success over an 82-game schedule, but his goal this season is to have fewer dry spells, such as the 13-game drought he had from mid-February to mid-March.
"Sometimes you're just playing and the puck finds you and your linemates and things go well," Miller said. "The more often you can be consistent and play hard with energy and be engaged in the more games you can, you're going to have more success. I just want to make sure I'm ready for every game and just try to go from there."
Miller said he will return to New York at the end of August, a few days before he begins preparing to play for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey. In the meantime, he and his soon-to-be bride can breathe easy that his contract is out of the way.
"It's great," said Miller, who has 37 goals and 39 assists in 196 NHL games. "We had an idea coming in that we were kind of close, kind of waiting and seeing. To get it done, this is where I came up through their system since I was drafted. I couldn't be happier that the deal is done and what the deal was. I'm really excited for the future."